In a bold move, French labour unions and employers’ federations have signed a legally binding agreement that stops “workday creep” — for some.
Recognising an assault on the country’s famous 35-hour week through the ability of bosses to invade their employees’ home lives via smartphone day and night, the agreement requires employers in a portion of the technology and consultancy sectors to make sure staff disconnect digitally from work during the rest periods already mandated by law.
While it does not literally ban French employees from sending emails after precisely 6 p.m., the agreement does protect staff from too much after-hours work intrusion (and consequently burnout) by preventing employers from being able to pressure employees to work harder by sending emails after office hours.
That means that for 11 consecutive hours each day and a minimum of 35 consecutive hours a week, about 200,000-250,000 workers won’t be checking company email or working on projects remotely. These requirements can be waived under exceptional circumstances, but employers will have to explicitly display the policy, making sure workers aren’t pressured to disobey it.
Like Marissa Mayer nipping Yahoo!’s work-from-home policy in the bud, this story has sent ripples through the Western working world. When the news started to hit, the media outlets rushed to cover and comment leading to some misinformation that was quickly corrected (and fingers pointed).
Perhaps the fire was fueled by a touch of jealousy?
French labor laws are unusually protective of employees’ free hours. When the legal working week was cut from 39 hours to 35 in 2000, the primary objectives were to shake up more jobs by encouraging better division of labour (nip overtime in the bud to create a new job for someone unemployed) and to take advantage of modern improvements in productivity to give workers some more personal time to enhance quality of life.
France’s strong support of work/life balance has caused tension with multinational companies. For instance, in early 2013, Apple was ordered to stop making workers stay until 11pm to close up its stores, a rule that was recently also upheld for cosmetics company Sephora. This new agreement will affect the likes of Google, Deloitte, and PwC.
Research does indicate that a move like this could help make French workers more, not less, productive. Google, for instance, recently ran a program called “Dublin Goes Dark” which involved collecting employee smartphones at the end of the day to make sure they wouldn’t be bothered by work email when they went home. The result? “Googlers reported blissful, stressless evenings.”
Similarly, researchers at the University of Florida, Michigan State University and University of Washington have found that you should give the smartphone a rest tonight to have a productive day tomorrow and smartphone fatigue can be so bad that it might offset all the productivity benefits that smartphones have to our work lives.
Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow studied executives at Boston Consulting Group who were given a chance to disconnect on a regular basis. As she reports in her book, “Sleeping With Your Smartphone,” the executives became more excited about their work, felt more satisfied about their professional and personal lives and even became more collaborative and efficient.
While France’s new agreement could be considered a bold move in the right direction to saying ‘it’s okay to have a life outside of work that is uninterrupted by work’, for many white-collar workers, periodically checking messages is a standard aspect of the job, despite widespread complaints about the practice — so, is it realistic? And, if not, is it only unrealistic because we’re too far down the 24/7 workday path to go back? (another great topic for another day: The Busy Trap).
I know a handful of employers/managers who actively discourage their staff from sending/tending to work-related emails outside of standard work hours — which I personally find admirable and encourage the same within our own team. But can it/should it be mandated at a government level? Or, rather than implementing this shift by force, do more employers just need to opt in and get with the flexible revolution because if a few leaders set the pace, more will follow?
I’d love to know what your thoughts are — is France’s move to ban after-hours email unrealistic and extreme? Or a bold move in the right direction?